Saturday 12 July 2014

Visit to the Flat Earth Society

I made a statement in the comments on a recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". It was in reply to an ACCG lobbyist for coin dealers who is intent on downplaying the part played by collecting in encouraging looting and blaming everyone else for it instead.

Whereas the purpose of an archaeological excavation is to gather information, the sole purpose of looting is purely to dig out objects that provide material or monetary gain. While a few looters, like those in ancient times, may dig in the faint hope of finding gold or other items of intrinsic worth, it is indeed "blatantly obvious" that most looters today are motivated by the far more realistic hope of finding things that are given high monetary value by the black market of the antiquities trade. In the basic logic of economics, as long as indiscriminate collectors continue to provide a 'demand', looters will be encouraged to provide a 'supply'.

In my innocence, I had thought my statement was so patently self-evident that I wasn't really expecting it to be contested. It was pretty much like saying water is wet or fire is hot. Sadly, I had not counted on the amazing logic-defying acrobatics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). To be fair, I do remember another member of the ACCG refusing to accept that looters are motivated by the monetary value of antiquities years ago - but I thought that even the ACCG had long since given up that quixotic attempt at denial. But nope, they are still at it.

In a move apparently calculated to push the ACCG into the same league of denial as the Flat Earth Society, Wayne Sayles, its Executive Director, challenged my statement with the riposte that "I think that is an inaccurate characterization". On his blog ("A Shot in the Foot", 6 July 2014), he went on to say ...
"I'm not sure in this case who "the rest of the world" is, but Knell's statement did not seem all that obvious to me, and does not comport with scholarly opinions that cite poverty as the primary cause of cultural property looting."
Aha! Poverty. So presumably, poor people take up looting as a pastime simply to relieve their boredom, toil away in the baking hot sun just to get a fashionable tan or go digging deep into the soil because of some irresistible mole-like instinct inherited from primordial ancestors. That must be it. Who am I to argue with "scholarly opinions"?

Oh wait ... seeing as they're so poor, the motivation for looting couldn't be because they might make money from it, could it? You know ... the money paid by middlemen and dealers and ultimately the collectors they supply? Nah, that would be just another convoluted way of saying that collecting provides most of the motivation for looting. Which sort of brings us back to my statement - the one that "did not seem all that obvious".

I'm not entirely convinced that looters, typically in organised gangs often armed with bulldozers, metal detectors and other sophisticated machinery, represent everyone's idea of "poverty". Helping to relieve genuine poverty is indeed a worthy cause but if Sayles really is concerned about poor people, I would have thought a more constructive approach would be to urge his clients to plough their money into supporting foreign charities, schools and hospitals rather than subsidising the destruction of archaeological sites. Encouraging destitute people to destroy their own cultural heritage just so you can drool over the goodies is known as 'taking advantage' of them, not as a humanitarian gesture. But in an attempt to justify his priorities, Sayles adds ...
"Eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins clearly would not eliminate looting. Some scholars have said as much publicly and at least one did so in the recent Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearing in Washington DC."
Ah! The trusty old 'straw man' argument again. It's not a question of eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins; it's a question of eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) the indiscriminate private collecting of ancient coins. Collectors need to be able to distinguish between coins that have been around for years and those that have been freshly looted. As I've said countless times, it ain't rocket science.

No, of course careful collecting would not eliminate looting - but it would be a giant step in the right direction. Sayles then tries to justify his 'straw man' argument ...
"One reason is that the trade is truly worldwide and repressing one market would simply divert the flow to another. Should American collectors be disenfranchised simply to make a meaningless point? Universal market repression is simply not going to happen."
Ah! The old "if elephant ivory is quite openly sold in China and the whaling industry is legal in Japan, why shouldn't we do that too" argument. Why do I keep seeing the same old tired excuses trotted out over and over again? There are tens of thousands of coin collectors in the US (a huge "flow"- so hardly "meaningless") but the economic dictum that demand stimulates supply apparently falls on selective hearing in this case. And I'd prefer to think that American collectors were ethically enlightened rather than "disenfranchised". Does a man prevented from snatching purses from little old ladies feel "disenfranchised" too - just because other people get away with it?

Sayles goes on to invent another justification ...
"The other reason is that those who loot ancient sites will inevitably find precious metal objects that can be melted down for bullion if not sold intact. Many who are familiar with Middle Eastern bazaars know very well that this is precisely what happens to many coin finds irrespective of national or international laws."
Yup, I've already heard this old chestnut too. For those of my readers who haven't drifted off by now, I'll just remind them of my statement: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". Precious metal items are quite rare in ancient sites and the effort put into gathering ordinary coins for scrap value is hardly likely to be worthwhile on a large scale. Few looters are going to expend enormous amounts of time and energy in the extremely vague hope that they just might chance upon something of intrinsic worth or a couple of kilos of old copper; the majority do it in the reasonable expectation of finding things that will repay their effort - common things given an inflated value by demand from the black market of the antiquities trade.

Sayles ends with a dark warning ...
"So, what is the point of this blog post? Simply that this sort of nonsense is not doing Archaeology any good."
I'm not quite sure why he thinks those working in archaeology would do better to turn a blind eye to activities that threaten to destroy the evidence that sustains it. One would suppose that anyone advising members of a profession what they should or should not do would have at least a basic knowledge of the topic but his later sentence reveals that he hasn't got even a vague idea of what archaeology actually is ...
"Because of a misguided concern about common coins that are sold legally worldwide and that archaeologists have traditionally ignored?"
No, it is not a "misguided concern"; the protection of evidence is a fundamental principle. Archaeology is about information, not just objects for their own sake. Sayles is confusing it with looting. It makes absolutely no difference how common the coins are; the looting of common coins causes every bit as much damage to sites as the looting of rare ones. Archaeologists are concerned about the loss of information caused by their brutal removal, not just the coins themselves. Some in the profession may have tolerated such philistinism in the past but people are far more aware of conservation issues today and, as I keep trying to point out, times have changed.

As a former collector myself, I fully understand the pleasure of collecting and I firmly support its future. But it does need to be carried out thoughtfully. A denial of facts that are indeed blatantly obvious is akin to being a "flat-earther" and merely opens the hobby to scorn and ridicule. Perhaps worse still, it perpetuates a common perception of all collectors as rapacious introverts who will invent any shallow excuse to exploit the archaeological resource for their own selfish ends. Sadly, it seems the ACCG circle of coin dealers is hell-bent on doing precisely that.

In his BAR comment, Sayles compared looting in Egypt and Britain. Paul Barford, an archaeologist, aptly described the activity of digging up archaeological objects purely for personal entertainment and profit as "Collection Driven Exploitation" (CDE) no matter where it takes place. I think that all-encompassing phrase covers it very well. Barford also posted an excellent response ("A Shot in the foot? Or Somebody Else's Despicable Verbal Tricks?", 6 July 2014) to Sayles's other points. Well worth reading.


Brief reply to the silly comment below the post on Sayles's blog:
"Knell is a collector of classic [sic - I think he means 'classical'] oil lamps of the type regularly uncovered from Roman and Greco-Roman habitation sites [sic - most are recovered from tombs]. Why he imagines that his collecting ethics motivate looters less, than say, other equally licit collectors, continues to be a source of humorous speculation."
No, Knell was a collector of ancient lamps. I stopped. I doubt that many looters are going to be motivated by someone who doesn't buy their loot.

Image: an ACCG coin dealer's view of the world - remarkably like a coin?

Friday 4 July 2014

A way forward?

My previous post about the response to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review has received a lengthy comment (split into two parts) from Rasiel Suarez, the coin dealer whose remarks I focused on. Rasiel has clearly spent some time composing his comment and rather than leaving it in relative obscurity, I have attempted to highlight his main points and reply to them properly in a new post. (The entire unedited comment is here.)
"I should probably know better than to write in defense; given the tone it's clear your perception of me and other ancient coin enthusiasts is long past the point where reasoned debate has any prayer of swaying opinions. All the same, I'll make an exception."
It is in the hope of "reasoned debate" that I am highlighting your comment in a post of its own. In that spirit, I have overlooked some of your less constructive statements rather than attack them and tried to focus more on the positive points you raised. Any "tone" you may perceive in my previous post was caused by the sheer frustration of apparently hitting my head against a brick wall.
"Your "solution" did not meet with stony silence as you say. It met with rightful ridicule. Let me reiterate: there is no such thing as a market where one may buy faultlessly provenanced coins."
Rasiel, you're inventing 'straw man' arguments again. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from current and future looting. That's it, nothing more. It's a simple and realistic goal; let's not confuse it with the higher ethical standards set by museums and institutions. We are both agreed that in the majority of cases coins in private hands cannot be "faultlessly provenanced" back to 1970 or whatever to meet those standards but that has nothing to do with the goal we are seeking to achieve. As I said in my previous post, all dealers need to do in order to discourage current and future looting is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot. It's really not rocket science.

Recording coins need not involve "official-looking writeups, licenses, stamps and concomitant minutiae of bureaucracy". By "record", I mean simply document the coins in a way that is not easily open to abuse and forgery. The primary objective is to 'date-stamp' them. I proposed a system for doing that nearly five years ago.

Of course, it is not an ideal solution from the viewpoint of those seeking to redress real or imagined past wrongs - nothing can magically create a genuine 1970 provenance out of thin air - but that is not its goal and it is a huge step forward in the right direction. It sounds as if its basic concept is not too different from what you set up on your own website (I haven't seen your version in detail since it requires a log-in): "a free service that timestamps a record of your coin along with pertinent information (including provenance) which at the very least lets the world know a date of possession..." That sort of thing is precisely what is needed and I applaud you for setting the ball rolling.
"Whether freshly excavated or recycled from a hundred previous auctions what the collector ultimately cares about is filling a hole in his or her collection."
What the rest of society ultimately cares about is filling gaps in the knowledge of their history and protecting the means of doing so from collectors who think of ancient coins like baseball cards. There will always be collectors of that mentality around but there is a limit to the time that the rest of society will pander to them.

The figures in your market barometer are interesting but irrelevant. Regardless of whether the market is growing or shrinking, the fact remains that coins are still being looted from archaeological sites and most dealers provide no means of distinguishing them from coins that have been around for years.
"... you've already admitted to owning coins you know DAMN well came from some location you'd rather not dwell too much on ..."
Nope, I don't feel guilty at all. I've already dealt with the guilt aspect in my previous post. What I'm trying to discuss is the prevention of current and future looting. You're conflating two different issues.
"On the other hand, looking at things from your perspective, you know that if there is no current "neat" solution to acquiring what the public desires then that demand will still get met one way or the other."
Indeed, but which "public" are you ultimately more worried will pose a greater threat to your business and coin collecting in general? If you mean the few thousand or so people who collect ancient coins, then yes, a proportion of those collectors will do anything to get their goodies. If you mean the millions of other people who care about history but don't give a toss about the people who collect coins, then they will gladly back any legislation that protects what matters to them - even if that legislation is unnecessarily harsh and bans collecting altogether. The trade needs to get THAT public on their side by cleaning up their act and showing that dealers care about history too. Ignore the majority of the population at your peril.
"Rather than take the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative - to a commercial base that would by all appearances be quite receptive even - you instead choose to bellyache over looters running wild blog after pointless blog from your bedroom pulpit urging us evil collectors to mend our ways. Have at it, then."
(As a former web designer, let me just explain terminology to avoid confusion before I reply. I think Rasiel means "post after post". A "blog" is a website that the posts are published on. I have made dozens of posts but I have only one blog.)

I would be happier if you had bothered to read through my blog before criticising it. As I said, I have already taken "the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative" nearly five years ago. The original post is here and there are follow-up posts here and here. It's not exactly hidden.

I have no interest in setting up as a coin dealer. What I am proposing is an online registry for coins and other antiquities. It must be funded of course but first, let's be realistic. Apart from the PAS in the UK, few elected governments will ask their taxpayers to fund a scheme which will merely help a tiny proportion of the electorate to carry on private collecting; they are more likely to take the cheaper and politically more popular step of simply banning or severely curtailing private collecting altogether. You could approach the government - but I wouldn't hold your breath.

A more likely source of funding is the private sector. Registration itself would need to be free or at least minimal. Revenue would have to be based on a form of advertising. Auction houses and large trade businesses dealing in ancient coins and other antiquities would receive a tremendous boost to their corporate image by being seen to back and sponsor such a public-spirited 'green' initiative directly related to what they do. They can spin it any way they want.

I worked for a large utility firm here in the UK at one time. You would be amazed at the obscure causes they sponsored just to be seen as 'green'. They may well have been secret cynics inside the boardroom but corporate image was vital.

The opportunity is there for you and the rest of the trade to expand the concept you already have on your website into a much broader vision, and fight the negative image of the trade by proactively showing the public that you really do care about the conservation of history and the environment. I will gladly work together with you. By all means, let's "have at it"!



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